We’re been through this before, when Three Mile Island tried to do its tango. We were in Millersville, 21 miles from ground zero and thus a hangnail’s distance outside the evacuation zone. We were in Philly with the children, doing a little gig, when the news came down. We had a gig upcoming in State College after that, and didn’t head back home. After all, we had ourselves and our kids already in go mode. We did our gig for their excellent Unitarian Fellowship and then asked if anybody could host unexpected refugees for a little while. No problem.
But if anybody remembers that particular cliff-hanger, there was a problem with a hydrogen bubble that could blow the whole thing sky-high, or not, and it took a while before it made up its mind. In the midst of this uncertainty, Conrad decided to make a fast run (3 ½ hours) down, a quick grab of our non-human essentials, and a fast 3 ½ return. Making that list was a challenging spiritual exercise. Not to mention the idea of possibly being unable to return for 150,000 years.
We agonized, then decided he should risk it, and he went. That was a very long day for me.
It all resolved OK, except for the many many people in that area who are now trying to assemble the stories of their families’ cancers and get somebody to at least admit that something happened.
So after a blissful beautiful Sunday in Golden Gate Park (at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival) and a slam-dunk birthday dinner for CB with our son Eli and his lady Meg, we crashed comfortably at their apartment in the Mission with a feeling of warm well-being.
Monday morning my body clock went ding at 7:30 AM, and nobody else was up. I was bored and lit up the iPhone and checked Facebook. My god, Sonoma County is on fire.
I woke the rest of the family with apologies and said we had to get the hell back home. Now. And as we drove, it became real. You couldn’t see Mt. Tam. Soon, breathing was uncomfortable. It was mid-morning with sunset light. As far as we could tell from the radio we weren’t yet in an evacuation zone, but the fires were moving fast as hell. We got home, comforted our cats (lonely from their unpeopled overnight), and started throwing together the stuff from the list we’d put together en route.
It ain’t over yet. The wind is predicted to kick up again in the next 24 hours, and all the fires are still active. The closest is seven miles, but in a high wind that’s a heartbeat. I’ve spent two days moving through the most beautiful place we’re ever lived, what was to be the cradle for our aging, and simultaneously saying hello, thank you, and goodbye. If we are spared, I will never forget this.
The Greek poet Cavafy wrote of a budding artist who despaired of achievement, seeing that he was only on the first rung of a tall, tall ladder. The response in the poem: Congratulations! The first rung is a huge achievement! Most never make it there.
I’m paraphrasing a translation, but I connect with this, both in its pain and its triumph. Only difference: the artist in the poem is young, and I’m 76 this week.
The first rung on what ladder? On the ladder of recognition, I and my mate were once a bit past first rung, but now we can claim the dubious distinction of 47 years of full-time professional life and being utterly unknown, except by a few souls who honor us for surviving. That ladder is one that it’s honorable to climb if it meshes with what calls you to be created, but we were ill-fitted to it, or it to us.
The ladder of craft: we’ve had a good climb. In theatre, radio, puppetry, fiction, I’m intensely proud of what we’ve done and in some of those arenas continue to do. I remember the slams much more vividly than the plaudits, but despite the fact that Elizabeth and I are our harshest critics, we’re also our biggest fans. I love the work we’ve done … and are doing.
But I’m still on the goddamned first rung. As you age, if you’re any damned good to start with, the rungs get further apart, harder to reach. You know how much you don’t know. You can’t write a word without hearing in your soul what Shakespeare did in King Lear, what Dickens did in David Copperfield, what Joyce did in “The Dead,” what the story-crafters of millennia have struggled to bring forth to whomever will give it a passing glance.
If Cavafy’s young artist persists, he may do great things. He may even become the peer of Cavafy. But he’ll never get past the first rung, at least within his own estimate, unless he fools himself. A few reach the second, perhaps, by the whim of gods who ask a terrible price: to be struck by lightning.
The rest of us keep walking into the dark, trudging to reach the inn where we can rest. Ah, we’re here. No, this isn’t the one, it’s the next one, only ten miles. No, the next…